If you like pizza, chances are you have contributed in a roundabout way to the spectacular financial success of James Leprino and his homegrown family enterprise, Denver-based Leprino Foods. More to the point for those of us who dwell in the political world: You also have contributed in some small way to the success (or otherwise) of the Colorado Republican Party.
The 79-year-old Leprino, whose net worth is pegged by Forbes at upward of $2.9 billion, is the mogul of mozzarella — a son of Denver’s old Italian community who developed his family’s humble grocery business into a multibillion-dollar, worldwide operation. Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars, among others — the ones you have on speed-dial for the Sunday afternoon game or your kid’s birthday bash — wouldn’t be able to make their pies without Leprino’s cheese. He supplies them all, and you’ve no doubt consumed his product.
Not that Leprino goes around bragging about it. By all accounts, he doesn’t even talk about it — or about himself. He almost never grants media interviews, even with the business press. Which is why it’s nearly impossible to find so much as a photo of him online, and his Wikipedia page almost looks like a placeholder.
What we do know about him and his company we’ve gleaned partly from the fact that it’s hard to keep success a total secret; word gets around. But mostly, it’s from an extensive new profile of Leprino — and rare interview with him — just published in Forbes magazine online and due in print June 13. Forbes’s Chloe Sorvino characterizes Leprino not so much as Colorado’s Howard Hughes as its “Willy Wonka of cheese,” and she chronicles his company’s rise from the most inauspicious of origins:
In 1958, after larger chain grocery stores had forced the Leprino market to close, the Leprino Foods cheese empire started with $615.
It’s a classic American business success story; definitely worth a read. (By the way, he wouldn’t let Forbes take his picture, either.)
One thing that isn’t in the article is the substantial role Leprino plays in political giving in Colorado and beyond, particularly on the Republican side of the partisan divide. You’ll find that on OpenSecrets.org.
Since 1990, Leprino Foods has contributed $1,521,894 to individual political campaigns and political committees, according to the campaign-finance data-crunching website. The company also has spent $760,000 on lobbying since 1998.
And the political contributions went overwhelmingly to Republican candidates and causes.
Sure, some of it went to Democrats, too; Colorado’s senior U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet got $8,200 in the 2015-16 election cycle, and 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver got $5,400 in that period. That’s just the business of politics. You have to spread the love around.
But over the years, easily 75 to 80 percent of all Leprino political contributions went to Republicans. 6th Congressional District Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman got $5,400 in the last election cycle, for example, according to OpenSecrets. Leprino also gives to Republicans outside Colorado, like California U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham and Texas U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway.
Leprino may be the bashful billionaire who is reluctant to open up to the media — “I really like to keep my privacy,” he tells Forbes’s Sorvino — but in politics, where money talks, his contributions speak volumes.